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DARPA seeks Hitchhikers Deep Thought program

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Pentagon boffinry chiefs are seeking to develop radical AI software capable of boiling down information from the news, overhead spy planes, wiretaps and so on "into a form that is more suitable for human consumption". Specifically, this means using the data to produce "a cohesive story that is germane to the goals of a decision-maker".

The programme, as regular readers will scarcely need to be told, comes from DARPA - the US military research bureau which functions like a combination of lunatic asylum and black hole, able to contain infinitely more craziness than its mere space-time dimensions would suggest.

In a bizarre, snake-eating-its-own-tail twist, DARPA - famous for turning the stories of science fiction into complex realities - now seeks to turn complex realities into stories. The Pentagon paradigm-punchers yesterday chucked out a request for what they call Experience-based Narrative Memory ware (EN-Mem).

According to the proposal document (pdf):

Too much information at too many levels of detail typifies the input stream provided by modern decision-support systems. Combat sensors, newswire feeds, video reports, and [surveillance robots] all provide both undigested and structured data concerning the current situation, its history, and future predictions, all without coordination or provenance...

Making sense of a complex situation is like understanding a story... This interpretation weaves a commonly understood narrative into the information in a way that captures the basic interactions of characters and the dynamics of their motivations while filling in details not explicitly mentioned in the input stream...

Like people, an Experience-based Narrative Memory system can retrieve and reuse stories to construct an appropriate interpretation of events...

Essentially, DARPA seems to be seeking an automated solution which can do what certain humans can - detectives, intel analysts, diplomats, occasionally (cough) journalists. That is, the desired EN-Mem system can look at a situation and answer the eternal question: what's the real story here?

It seems pretty unlikely that this can really be done, but no doubt DARPA and its chosen associates will have a lot of fun trying.

Meanwhile, one does feel a bit compelled to speculate on a world in which EN-Mem existed and functioned as advertised. What, for instance, would be the real story behind a situation in which a military research bureau solicited a piece of miraculous software which could always work out the real story behind events?

DARPA also appear to hint that the EN-Mem system, fully developed, might possess truly astonishing powers:

The desired outcome of this research is a mixed-initiative system through which complex situations are made simple, understandable, and solvable...

Such a computer would presumably be able to give a simple answer to the most impossible questions. Sadly, it does seem rather likely that the answer would typically be "42" or similar. ®

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